As one representative put it, "school choice" is a misnomer - it should be called "school pay."
A vast spectrum of education officials presented their cases Wednesday at a special information meeting hosted by the Pennsylvania House Education Committee, held to discuss issues surrounding the funding of cyberschools.
The debate comes after a call by the Pennsylvania School Boards Association for the state to impose a moratorium on formation of cyberschools because of the costs of their operation.
The core concern is over the funding formula in which school districts pay 80 percent of what they normally spend per pupil in their respective schools.
There are currently more than 13,000 students enrolled in the state's 12 cyberschools, with districts spending $5,000 to $15,000 per student.
Of that, school districts are reimbursed up to 30 percent of that cost.
But cyberschools are growing at a fast rate.
According to Nick Trombetta, CEO of the Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School, the virtual institution has grown from 17 students to about 1,100 in just six years.
"Pennsylvania, seriously, is the leader in cyber, online education," Trombetta said. "We started without a blueprint, but each year we're in a better position to serve more children."
And therein lies the discord among "traditional" public school districts.
"(Cyberschool) growth is 10 times that of public schools," said Lawrence Korchnak, superintendent of the Hampton School District in Allegheny County. "The formula is having a disparaging impact on our school district budgets. We believe it's necessary to modify present legislation to provide equity."
Some suggestions among those opposed to the current formula included negotiating a fee structure or devising a flat rate for cyberschools.
House Education Committee Chairman Jess Stairs, R-Westmoreland, asked if picking a universal number to use, rather than different costs for different school districts was an option.
"We should be investing in instructional cost, not decreasing," said Jim Hanak, CEO of Pennsylvania Leadership Charter School in West Goshen. "A change in the funding formula will send us in the wrong direction."
Hanak added that a forced budget will lead to larger class sizes, smaller support and administrative staff, elimination of socialization programs and an inferior curriculum.
"It will mostly affect at-risk students," he said.
Joanne Barnett, CEO of Pennsylvania Virtual Charter School, said coming up with a flat rate "would be saying all cyberschools are the same."
"I don't think we'd say that for the other 500 school districts," she said.
Lawrence Jones, president of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Charter Schools, said budget cuts will diminish innovation, competition and school choice.
"The cost is a result of the advanced technology and innovation services we provide to students," Jones said. "Cyberschools offer expanded choices in educational opportunities."
However, statistics show cyberschools aren't always at the top when measured by current academic standards, particularly the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA).
According to Mary Ramirez, director of the Pennsylvania Department of Education's Bureau of Community and Student Services, of the 12 cyberschools in the state, one met Adequate Yearly Progress; one made progress; five were placed on warning lists; one was placed on School Improvement I; three were placed on School Improvement II; and one is opting out of renewing its charter at the end of the school year.
Those scores were attributed to low marks by IEP-Special Education and Economically Disadvantaged students - subgroups that have many school districts struggling to keep up with No Child Left Behind legislation.
Still, cost and accountability for student achievement are areas where some contend there is little data in regard to cyberschools.
Grace E., Bekaert, treasurer of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, said while she had reservations on the test as a sole measure of educational performance, the education committee should gather more research on curriculum, assessment, funding and accountability of cyberschools.
"We believe the committee should conduct an independent study not just on funding, but performance," Bekaert said.
"We don't want to live at the expense of traditional schools," said Trombetta. "I would support reporting and accountability. We shouldn't be exempt from any standards. We don't deserve special treatment."
Following the meeting, Hanak said he was pleased with the turnout, which pushed the room over its 120-person capacity, as well as the discussion.
"I thought it went exceptionally well," he said. "I felt like we were playing on the home court with all the applause. I thought everyone had appropriate concerns and articulated them well on both sides."
According to Stairs, there are currently no bills to cut cyberschool funding in front of the House Education Committee.